Certain tattoo designs have developed recognized coded meanings. The code systems can be quite complex and because of the nature of what they encode, the designs of criminal tattoos are not widely recognized as such to outsiders.
Since tattooing in prison is illegal in the United States, the inmates do not have the proper equipment necessary for the practice. This forces inmates to find ways to create their own tattooing devices out of their belongings. Improvised tattooing equipment has been assembled from materials such as mechanical pencils, magnets, radio transistors, staples, paper clips or guitar strings.
N. Banerjee wrote in 1992 for The Wall Street Journal about tattoos in Russian prisons:
"...the pain does deter even the most macho convict from covering his body, all at once, with meaningful pictures. Tattoos are created by instilling pigment in the skin with thousands of needle pricks. In the camps, the process can take anywhere from a few hours to a few years, depending on the artist and his ambition, says Mr. Bronnikov. Because of prison conditions, tattoo artists have to improvise with materials and equipment. For instance, they will draw a picture on a wooden plank, place needles along the lines of the design, cover the needles with ink and stamp the whole tableau on the prisoner's body. Another method is to slice the image onto the skin with a razor and daub the cut with indelible ink. Usually, prisoners manage to get an electric shaver and a syringe with a needle, which they jury-rig into a tattooing machine. Ink is hard to come by, so to make dye, artists will often burn the heel of a shoe, and mix the ash with the prisoner's own urine -- a practice convicts believe reduces the chance of infection."
Russian criminal tattoos have a complex system of symbols which can give quite detailed information about the wearer. Not only do the symbols carry meaning but the area of the body on which they are placed may be meaningful too. The initiation tattoo of a new gang member is usually placed on the chest and may incorporate a rose. A rose on the chest is also used within the Russian Mafia. Wearing false or unearned tattoos is punishable in the criminal underworld, usually by removal of the tattoo, followed by beatings and sometimes rape, or even murder. Tattoos can be removed (voluntarily, in the case of loss of rank, new affiliation, "life style" change, etc.) by bandaging magnesium powder onto the surface of the skin, which dissolves the skin bearing the marks with painful caustic burns. This powder is gained by filing "light alloy" e.g. lawnmower casing, and is a jailhouse commodity.
"As Russia's leading expert on tattoo iconography, Mr. Arkady Bronnikov can tell the prisoner's story from looking at the designs on his body. The huge spider in a web that is drawn on his skull reveals, in prison tattoo code, that he is a drug addict. Also, he is a repeat offender: The onion domes of a Russian church fan across his shoulder blades, each of the seven cupolas representing a different stay in prison. Above the church, across the back of his neck, the convict has stencilled, in Russian, "Not just anyone can hold his head this high."... "The more tattoos a convict gets, the more sentences he has served, the more respect he gets in prison," says the 66-year-old Mr. Bronnikov. "The tattoos show that he isn't afraid of pain."
Tattoos done in a Russian prison often have a distinct bluish color (due to being made with ink from a ballpoint pen) and usually appear somewhat blurred because of the lack of instruments to draw fine lines. The ink is often created from burning the heel of a shoe and mixing the soot with urine, and injected into the skin utilizing a sharpened guitar string attached to an electric shaver.
"In [Russian] prison, the ink for tattoos was manufactured from molten rubber mixed with water and sugar. Artists used sewing needles sharpened on concrete cell floors. Sometimes, portraits of Stalin and Lenin--with or without horns--were in fashion, sometimes monasteries and medieval knights. Occasionally, caricatures of Communists with pig snouts or prison guards in wolf guise were the rage. Maps of the gulag system, with Russia portrayed as a giant prison camp might be etched across someone's back. Crucifixion scenes were popular. Ronald Reagan was even a subject, according to a Russian dictionary of prison slang."
In addition to voluntary tattooing, tattoos are used to stigmatize and punish individuals within the criminal society. These tattoos may be placed on an individual who fails to pay debts in card games, or otherwise breaks the criminal code, and often have very blatant sexual images, embarrassing the wearer. Tattoos on the forehead are sometimes forcibly applied, and designed both to humiliate the bearer and warn others about him or her. They frequently consist of slurs about the bearer's ethnicity, sexual orientation, or perceived collusion with the prison authorities. They can indicate that the bearer is a member of a political group considered offensive by other prisoners (e.g. Vlasovite), or has been convicted of a crime (such as child rape) which is disapproved of by other criminals. They can also advertise that the bearer is "downcast", or of the lowest social caste in the prison, usually used for sexual gratification of higher ranked inmates. Voluntary facial tattoos signify that the bearer does not expect to be released back into normal society within his lifetime, and will usually consist of tattoos on the eyelids of messages such as "Don't Wake Me Up." They are managed by inserting a metal spoon under the eyelid so the tattoo needle does not pierce the eye.
Tattoos that consist of political or anti-authoritarian statements are known as "grins". They are often tattooed on the stomach of a thief in law, as a means of acquiring status in the criminal community. A Russian criminologist, Yuri Dubyagin, has claimed that, during the Soviet era, there existed "secret orders" that an anti-government tattoo must be "destroyed surgically", and that this procedure was usually fatal. Tattoos of the portraits of Soviet leaders like Lenin and Stalin were often applied on the chest due to a belief that firing squads were forbidden to shoot at the leaders' portraits.